Monday, July 24, 2017

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is immersive and spectacular

Christopher Nolan's latest film, Dunkirk, is a movie of contradictions. Within the expansive, epic frames of Dunkirk's beaches, humans seem miniscule, like ants; yet the movie's intertwined stories are small and personal. It is a movie set in World War II, no stranger to epics of heroism and victory, yet it is atypical as far as these epics go: it is based on a "colossal military disaster," a military evacuation by cornered Allied forces during the Battle of France.

In this movie, Nolan plays with time like he has with his earlier movies like Interstellar, Inception and Memento. The film's three narratives take place over different stretches of time, but eventually intertwine near the end.

Each story is engaging and immersive - helped by impressive technical filmmaking - that collectively helps the audience get into the moment. Dunkirk is all about the moment, and it can almost feel like a tone poem at times. And though its stories are smaller-scale, personal tales of survival, we barely get to know these characters. I can probably identify only one or two characters by name. These stories disappear into the crowd, perhaps communicating the fact that true stories of war are seldom individualized, instead they are formed by a crowd of combatants reacting to the war around them. The enemy is even more mysterious. There isn't a single swastika seen, and they are referred to simply as "The Enemy." They exist out of frame, manifesting as gunshots out of nowhere, planes from high above, faceless and amorphous. Their anonymity may perhaps be a reflection of how those soldiers at Dunkirk viewed the enemy, adding more weight to the entire immersive experience.

Dunkirk is a story of survival, a story of humanity and hope amidst almost total despair. It's a unique take on the WWII epic and an impressive technical and cinematic feat.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Viddsee and the FDCP are holding a program for local filmmakers!


I've been a longtime fan of the video streaming site Viddsee, where you can see short films from around the world. I've also been meaning to write something about the site for a long time, but haven't had the motivation to do so.

Now is a good time, however, as Viddsee and the FDCP are holding a filmmaker program where local filmmakers can submit their own films to the site, and 10 lucky winners will be selected by an expert jury to be shown all around the Philippines. From these 10 finalists, winners will be chosen come November and amazing prizes (filmmaking equipment, for one, as well as an immersion course in Los Angeles.) 

There's no entry fee at all, so even I'm thinking of submitting something. It would be super DIY but why the heck not, right? You can read their submission guidelines via this link and their official Facebook page is over here.

I'm also planning on doing regular reviews (probably short pieces) reviewing random short films from the site, so watch out for that as well. 

The deadline for submission is September 14, 2017, so start making those films, and I'll see you next time!

Friday, July 21, 2017

July Reviews: Beautiful Pain, Kita Kita

Redha, re-released here in the Philippines as Beautiful Pain, is a Malaysian family drama about a husband and wife coming to terms with the fact that their child is autistic. Their journey of discovery is not an easy one; at first the father is in full denial, while the mother goes from doctor to doctor to find out what exactly is wrong with her child.

The film also serves as a tool to teach its viewership about autism. I'm not familiar with Malaysian perceptions of autistic individuals, but if this film is characteristic of such perceptions, it seems that the public at large is misinformed about the condition, attaching some sort of stigma to people within the autism spectrum. The film repeatedly presents situations where the family experiences discrimination, or situations where people attribute the child's behavioral problems to bad parenting. In  righting misconceptions and setting the record straight, Beautiful Pain makes its explanations easy to understand, and in that regard, the film works.

There are some very poignant moments in Beautiful Pain, even though the film can sometimes veer into manipulative territory. It works best when the drama does not call too much attention to itself. The film's last third feels a bit rushed, and could have benefited from dedicating more time to certain characters. Ultimately the film's simplicity works in its favor, and it works in offering a different cultural perspective on autism.

After a series of very stressful events, Sapporo tour guide Lea (Alessandra de Rossi) loses her vision. She then encounters a new neighbor, Tonyo, (Empoy Marquez) who begins a friendship with the young woman.

Genre savvy people might figure out a good chunk of the plot from the first ten minutes of the film, but the climax of Kita Kita still surprised me in a good way. It skillfully manages to create a sweet and cute story of two people finding each other in a foreign land, and subsequently avoids many pitfalls that could have messed up the final product.

Sure, the title "Kita Kita" means "I see you" in Tagalog, but the film cleverly finds the hidden beauty in things we don't see, even if it's in plain sight. The film is riddled with visual cues that make sense later on, an incentive to rewatch the film and find all the things that one may have missed. On a different level, it works too: Kita Kita is also about how even simple acts of kindness can create a ripple effect, changing lives in different and profound ways.

The film's aesthetic is a strange mix of Filipino rom com and anime that I really couldn't place, but nevertheless enjoyed. Visually the film makes great use of Sapporo as a location, and its frames are colorful and soft.

Empoy Marquez deserves a lot of credit for making the movie work. His choice as male lead is an unusual one, given what we're used to with these kinds of films, but his performance saves the film. Instead of being a pushy, even stalkerish suitor, Tonyo is sincere and comes with the best of intentions. The couple's chemistry also manages to work, despite the unusual pairing. Their growth as a couple is done gradually, a slow build-up of mutual trust.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film's title gains another meaning. Kita in Japanese can mean a lot of things (such as "it came"), but in the lingo of otaku, "Kita" as an exclamation is used when something unexpected  and unlikely has happened. It's used, for example, as a reaction when other people say something crazy that they've been holding back on for a long time. Perhaps, a confession of love.

I kinda like that definition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bloody Crayons is camp af, but bloody entertaining

Let me preface this by saying Bloody Crayons is no Citizen Kane; if you went into this expecting a masterpiece you are clearly deluding yourself. It's campy as hell, and most of the characters fall within slasher film tropes in that most of them are too stupid to live (or just lack common human sense.) Let me also say this is a sillier review than usual, with me stream of consciousness-ing the entire time.

That said, the film is pretty entertaining, if you go into it to see millennials (and non millennials) get killed in various horrifying ways. Also, it's at least interesting to see how the story and the central mystery plays out, though it quickly becomes painfully obvious who is doing the killings.

The premise, unfortunately, does not involve psychopathic kindergarten teachers stabbing random people with really sharp crayons, which is what I was gunning for. (If anyone ever tries to make a film like that, call me.) Instead, it's based on a Wattpad novel, and we all know Wattpad is home to Palanca award winning masterpieces like Talk Back and You're Dead and Diary ng Panget. 

In the film, a group of film students go to a secluded mansion to film their final project. After playing a (decidedly low budget) party game called Bloody Crayons, people start to die. Who is behind the killings? Why is it happening? Normal crayons don't really make a mark on the skin; aren't those crayon pastels instead of crayons? Why not make it Bloody Markers instead? What's so Bloody about those crayons, or is it an adjective pejoratively addressing the crayons for making awkward social situations possible ("those damn bloody crayons")? Why is the Bloody Mug a plastic party cup worth ~2 pesos with a label on the side?

The acting ranges from "great" to "like cardboard". I won't say who to avoid getting lynched. There's also a scene that has an unusual fascination towards the male characters' abs (complete with slow panning shots!) That I found really weird especially contrasted with the female characters' very conservative swimsuits. But you know, if you're into that stuff, I won't judge.

The film is so unabashedly campy and unpretentious that it's to the film's credit. Its straightforwardness means you get exactly what you pay for: 1.5 hours of slasher film fun. In a world where absolutely everything has to be a commentary on something, sometimes (but not often) genre films like this offer a welcome respite.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ToFarm Film Festival Report Part 2: What Home Feels Like, Instalado, Sinandomeng

What Home Feels Like is more an OFW movie than a farming movie, but the results are still pretty effective. Antonio is a seaman; he has been for a very long time. When a tiff with his employer ends up firing him from his job, he's now on the ground, which makes him truly face his family for the very first time, as his job basically made him an absentee dad. He takes up his time farming and doing miscellaneous things, including tending to his small farm.

Antonio's story is a common story, and it resonates quite well. For the sake of economic stability, parents have increasingly decided to go to work abroad for longer stretches of time to the detriment of quality family time. The drama hits all the right notes at all the right times, and a surprise twist that should probably surprise no one is still effective when all's said and done. 

The film is far from perfect, however. The film could have shown Antonio's reconciliation with his children with a bit more depth, and the ending leaves some questions unanswered. Antonio may have changed his behavior towards his children for the better, but we don't get much of that on screen as his children leave soon after the dramatic speeches are made.

The film mainly works because of a great performance from Bembol Roco as Antonio. Irma Adlawan is equally as capable as his wife, providing the perfect balance to Antonio's fatherly disposition. What Home Feels Like is decent, though flawed, family drama that balances its drama just right.

The best kinds of science fiction films aren't always the big budget special effects extravaganzas. The best science fiction stories are the stories that give us insight into the human condition within its fantastical setting. The best science fiction frames sociopolitical issues that help us understand ourselves in the present day.

Based on its premise alone, Instalado is very promising. It takes place in a near future Philippines where people have gained the ability to "install" vast quantities of knowledge into their brains. Imagine learning how to become a nurse or engineer overnight - on the surface, it's a groundbreaking tool for humankind.

However, Instalado posits the question: what if this tool meant to uplift humanity was placed within the rotten structures of our current society, which is precariously balanced on class inequality? We get one possible answer: the death of traditional education, the creation of a new elite class, extreme capitalism, and the widening of the divide between rich and poor.

Personally, I think installation in itself is merely a tool and is neither good nor evil - it's only in how people use it that it can be used for an agenda or in unethical ways. Here, it can be used to promote capitalist prospects, it can be used to proselytize, it can erase peoples' identities or religious affiliation, and it can indirectly oppress the poor thanks to the way it is used. While watching this film, I kept coming back to Alex Rivera's 2008 film Sleep Dealer, which dealt with the Mexican immigration problem and how technology with a capitalist streak can affect the problem (and the people involved) in negative ways.

The world is meticulously crafted, but herein lies my one real gripe with the film. In a universe created through worldbuilding, a crucial step in the creation of an effective story arc is to have that world challenged somehow, to show us if it can stay robust or have the world profoundly changed or destroyed thanks to another paradigm shift. Instalado takes its sweet time building its world, having several story arcs seemingly heading towards a climactic third act that doesn't really fully materialize. There is the promise of such a thing happening, a few tantalizing hints here and there, but it's ultimately left unexplored.

Science fiction is a rarity in Philippine Cinema, and the subgenre of social science fiction, even more so. But I think independently made, low budget films are suited to this kind of storytelling, with films like this and Kung Ang Ulan ay Gawa sa Tsokolate offering a Filipino perspective to speculative and fantastical fiction. I can only hope that more filmmakers experiment with different genres instead of  relying solely on vapid rom coms or the "shet ang hirap hirap ko" social drama.

There's a certain kind of nostalgia evoked by the music and images of Byron Bryant's Sinandomeng. Of all the films of this year's film festival, I think this is the film that took the core principles of the festival to heart.

The synopsis on the brochure basically tells you all you need to know about the film: Sinang (Sue Prado) is the remaining child of a family that owns a modest plot of land, used for farming. All of her brothers have gone abroad, leaving their wives and children back home. When Sinang's husband dies, she takes it upon herself to keep maintaining the farm. However, land developers are interested in the family land for their own purposes.

The film is paced rather slowly. It's filled with some really funny comedic moments, while other jokes fall flat. You get the feeling that the premise could be covered by a shorter film, even though the film is already one of the shortest in the festival.

Sinandomeng's images evoke a simpler time when people lived off the land and celebrations were modest but full of heart. It recalled childhood memories of walking through the farms of my relatives in Bulacan and smelling the fresh air. It features sparse musical interludes filled with local folk songs that further evoke this feeling.

And then, once the film has more or less resolved itself, it just stops. The film's greatest weakness may be that it's simplistic to a fault. While enjoyable and immersive in the moment, it just comes and goes, leaving you with interesting images that ultimately fade away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

ToFarm Film Festival Report Part 1: High Tide, Kamunggai, Baklad

Now on its second year, ToFarm Film Festival is a film festival about farmers, farming and everything about them. It's a pretty unlikely topic to make films for, but it's a welcome change to learn about the Filipino farmer in a cinematic milieu where they aren't discussed as much. These guys put food on our collective tables, so it's high time we take notice of these unsung heroes.

High Tide, Tara Illenberger's first feature length in 5 years, is about a number of families in a coastal village devastated by a powerful typhoon. They get by with fish farming, collecting clams on the shore and other activities. The story focuses on three kids, Unyok, Dayday and Leila as they live their relatively carefree childhood lives in an environment that is struggling to heal itself.

High Tide operates similarly to Illenberger's first feature length film Brutus, in that it involves children undertaking a journey of self-discovery. In this case it's Unyok, who lost both parents to the typhoon and has subsequently lost the ability to speak due to the trauma. But High Tide also looks at the bigger picture: it looks at the detrimental effects of climate change not only on the environment, but on the people living in that environment. It puts a human face on the toll our negligence has caused. It shows us that more than ever,in the face of climate change, the poorest of us are the ones who suffer the most.

The mangroves in this tale serve as a character of its own; the mangroves nurture and protect the community, and in many parts of the movie replanting them symbolizes a new beginning. It's no coincidence that it's paired with a human endeavor that itself symbolizes starting over and change - marriage.

The movie takes a long time to get off the ground (at 90 minutes, an hour is spent on just building up the characters and story.) But once it does, everything comes together dramatically, although the production gets a bit rough at some points. It's drama worth watching.

You know, there's something about Vic Acedillo's films that are really charming, even though production-wise his films aren't the best. I had the same feeling with his earlier film Lando at Bugoy, which was about a father-son relationship strained to the limit after dad goes back to school. This time, it's about an elderly retiree and his grandson. Lolo Peping has a real green thumb, but this puts him at odds with his neighbors, who regularly swipe his crops. That sets off a chain of events that threatens his simple way of living.

That's the main premise of Kamunggai. It's about the joy of growing stuff in your garden and eating from the fruits of your labor, relevant stuff especially in modern times where everything is instant or fast food.

The grandpa-grandson duo have a rough start together, but they do eventually develop a mutual respect for one another. They branch off into their own storylines, with Peping finding ways to purchase the land that he lives on, while grandson Kenken tries to fit in at his new school and make friends. It's simple stuff, though both characters live with ghosts from their own past and are trying to better themselves in the process.

The film also raises questions about land ownership and issues of sustainability, though it does so in a relatively lighthearted way. The film isn't as refined as some of the other films in this festival - the sound cuts off at odd times, there are some weird comedic moments that don't work, and the edits sometimes feel off as well. But that's all overridden by a strange charm that I can't place that made me smile at some parts. There's obvious heart in the making of Kamunggai, and it shows.

Baklad means fish trap in Tagalog - it's a practice where people fence off areas of a body of water to trap the fish inside, fatten them up, then farm them for profit. In this case, the trap ensnares people within it as well. Ronwaldo Martin is one such person, hired as a "fishpen boy" who ensures that fish don't escape the enclosure. His boss buys Maya (Elora Espano), a deaf-mute girl who is for all intents and purposes his sex slave. They fall in love and sex ensues.

The premise seems workable, but there's a sleaziness to its execution that reminded me of softcore films from the early 2000's. (Personally, I'd have no objection calling this film Horny Fish Boys.) Everyone seems to be perpetually horny, watching porn or engaging in communal jacking off sessions. It's certainly not my cup of tea, but fine, different strokes for different folks (pun intended.) The first 2/3 of the film wasn't as bad as I thought it could be, though the whole product is pretty skeevy. (I'll also hold off on the mayo for a while, thanks.)

Then the film completely falls off a cliff in the last third. Subtitles start disappearing. There's no soundtrack, sound effects are mostly absent and there's no dialogue for minutes on end. Scenes feel unpolished (unpolished being an understatement.) Everyone acts like they were in a hurry to end production, and it really shows. This last act feels very unfinished, as if it were shoehorned in at the last minute. Character arcs and resolutions appear out of the blue, making for a very unsatisfying experience.

The film tries to insert commentary on fishpens and their deleterious effects on the community by making competition unfair, but it all feels shoehorned in. There's even a commentary on EJK that feels jammed into the movie as well. All in all Baklad was disappointing. I didn't care for the first 2/3 and the last third was terrible.

***

ToFarm Film Festival, with the motto "Planting Seeds of Change," screens at multiple movie theaters from July 12-18.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017: Anthem of the Heart

From the team that made the anime Anohana comes a youth drama about communication and the feelings we hide from everyone else. When four students are chosen to head a class production for the school festival, the choices could have not been more dysfunctional; there's honor student Sakagami, popular girl Nito, Tasaki, an injured baseball star who's moping about his injury, and Jun Naruse, a girl who decided one day to shut up after running her mouth almost destroyed her life.

Though occasionally given to flights of fanciful imagination, the movie is grounded and the characters all have their own complex web of hangups and neuroses. In the center of it is Jun, whose refusal to speak stems from a deep seated notion of self loathing. How you resonate with Jun's character will reflect how much you will appreciate the film.

For a society that has trouble expressing their feelings, Anthem of the Heart (the Japanese title is roughly translated as "the Heart wants to shout") is about the different ways people express (or don't express) their emotions. While Jun is more overt with her non-expression, her classmates (and even the adult characters, such as Jun's mom) are just as guilty of not saying what they feel in different ways. In turn, they deal with this problem in their own ways as well - with one being direct to the point only in ways boys can be, while others choosing to express their feelings in some other way.

The movie leans on the musical genre, but doesn't take full advantage of it, which is I think a bit of a missed opportunity. The third half of the film descends into predictable territory, though some elements of how the relationships sort themselves out are genuinely surprising (even jarringly so.)

The movie gained enough positive reaction that a live action adaptation is coming. Though not as powerful as some of the other anime films to come in the past one or two years, I'd recommend this if you like stories in the same vein.

*  *  *

That's it for my Eiga Sai reviews this year. This has been a pretty decent lineup, though I didn't really see any standouts compared to last year's edition. I'm super happy that a lot of people decided to attend, often filling Shangrila Cineplex to at least half or more than half capacity. Now that they're charging for screenings, I hope they get some really great films next year. The charging for tickets also has an added advantage of allowing me to marathon films - before, when the screenings were free, once you came out of the previous screening, you were too late to line up for the next free screening. Two great Japanese films for the price of one regular screening is not bad in my book.

There are two films that I've seen before, either on DVD or in theaters, that I haven't reviewed yet (not counting Departures) - the Bakuman live action adaptation and If Cats Disappeared From the World, which is probably the standout film this year, though it will be shown later tomorrow in Tagalized form. I will probably do reviews of both once I'm finished with ToFarm, which started yesterday.

Eiga Sai continues in Edsa Shangrila Cinemas up to July 16 (Sunday), with screenings at other venues, such as UPFI at subsequent dates.